Council journalists aren’t ‘best value’.

March 26, 2009

I had a quick Twitter debate this week with two associates regarding the Dagenham council ‘newspaper’ jobs and how I was outraged at the ridiculously high wages it was going to pay its ‘reporters’.

The 140 character limit of Twitter can make such debates tricky, and I don’t think I made my case clearly enough, so it’s a good job I have a blog, read by at least four people, where I can win such arguments (even if it’s in my own head).

As you may or may not be aware, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is launching The News, a “new fortnightly community newspaper”.

I can see nothing wrong with the council newsletters most local authorities put up, as they don’t pretend to be anything other than the council communicating its message (I’ve read so many press releases I’m starting to sound like a press officer here).

But this newspaper idea is very dangerous and will undoubtely be confusing for many readers.
A council spokesman said The News would be a newspaper concentrating “on community rather than hard news”. 
In other words it will still be a pro-council product which will carry only positive council stories, but it will be posing as a professional vehicle driven by journalists

If that’s not bad enough, The News will have a very damaging effect on exisiting local newspapers – if not put them out of business entirely.
Not only will the council pull some of its own advertising away from the local press (even without statutory advertising this could be several tens of thousands of pounds), but according to the Press Gazette, the paper will seek to be “self-financing by competing for advertising from the commercial market”. In other words it will actively look to steal advertisers from the Dagenham Post.

I saw an excellent comment on one story about this. The commenter made the analogy of you owning a sweetshop, and then the council opening a sweetshop next door using tax payers money to get started. The council sweetshop can continue to be subsidised by taxpayers money as long as it needs to, so it will have none of the risks of your sweetshop and can sell its sweets cheaper.
Your only hope of survival is that your strawberry bon-bons might taste a bit nicer as they wont have been pumped full of artificial chemicals. But will enough people notice that your lemon sherberts are better for you when they cost so much more?

Councils are supposed to be there to serve their communities. But this move is doing the exact opposite.
Not only will it potentially kill off an exisiting business, it will also seriously damage local democracy in the process because without the Dagenham Post, who is going to hold the politicians and bureacrats to account?
It certainly wont be The News.

Back to my original point – the salaries The News will be paying its staff.
It’s journalists will be paid between £29,223 to £31,353, its sub editor £30,591 – £33,081 and its deputy editor £33,081 – £35,841.

To put this into context – a trainee journalist on a regional paper can currently expect to earn £14,500 – £16,000. A newly qualified senior about £18,500 – £19,000.
I’m the editor of a weekly paper, and I’d be on parity (give or take a grand) with one of these council ‘journalists’.

So my question is, how can the council justify paying so much above the going market rate?

The obvious argument that most people (well, most journalists) will make is that actually the council is paying a fair wage and its newspapers who are the Scrooges.
And they’d be right. The knowledge and amount of work put in by the modern journalist is woefully rewarded. We’re being ripped off, we all know that.

But that argument can only be taken so far. My point is that these council journalists – who are actually going to be doing less indepth, less challenging jobs than the rest of us – will be rewarded far too richly with taxpayers money for essentially betraying their trade.

To steal an awful councilese phrase, the taxpayer is clearly not going to be getting ‘Best Value’ (and I wonder whether The News will be littered with such awful language).

The council could easily fill those jobs by paying ten grand a head less.
I guess one the reason they’re paying so much is that they are hoping to attract some quality journalists, and they know that such reporters will see through their dirty little agitprop rag but will be tempted by the filthy lucre.

I won’t resent anyone who takes up one of these posts as it’s hard to live on a reporter’s wage, but I won’t be able to respect them.


Two things MPs can do for journalism

March 19, 2009

I’ve just read Dan Mason’s blog regarding MPs debating the future of the regional press. He suggests three things that they can do to start. http://www.danmason.co.uk/?p=664

Some interesting ideas, and it’s inspired me to come up with a couple of my own.

1. Talk to actual journalists. My biggest fear is that the MPs will simply listen to the owners rather than those at the coalface.

During these dark times, journalists seem to be further away than ever from their employers and many believe the owners are the ones responsible for the dire state of the industry in the first place.

I do appreciate how important it is for papers to make money, but the need to keep shareholders happy with unsustainable margins has become much, much more important than the journalism itself.

Just look at one of the greatest issues being raised by the owners at the moment – the relaxation of rules on how much media they can own. They want bigger empires so they can make more money.

Journalists biggest desires is much simpler – they want enough resources to be able to do their jobs properly.

So if the MPs debate is about protecting journalism, talk to the journalists, not the businessmen.

2. Help journalists set up not-for-profit companies.

The changes to the way council housing stock was handled during the 90s, while not perfect, had an incredible effect on the lives of council tenants. Housing associations were given grants from the Government to get started, and most are now self-sustaining and making money. But this is done without profits being the main goal.

So why not a similar business model for newspapers?
The Government could give grants (or loans) to allow journalists to either set up their own not-for-profit papers, or to buy existing papers and turn them into not-for-profits.

Answerable to a trust of local, independent (non-political) individuals, such papers would need to make a certain amount each year to keep going, but the push for greater or unrealistic profits would not affect the quality of journalism.

Indeed, any profits could be reinvested in technology or more staff, and perhaps even in years of greater than expected profit, staff could be given bonuses (perhaps like the John Lewis partner system).

Oh well, one can but dream.


Two tier regulation

March 12, 2009

It’s been another turbulent week in the unhappy world of journalism with more job cuts, pay freezes, forced unpaid holidays, strikes and Roy Greenslade suggesting most “freesheets” “have little worthwhile editorial content”.

But for me the most important story has been the ongoing media select committee hearings in the House of Commons.

Evidence has been given by Gerry McCann, Robert Murat and Max Moseley about how the press – largely the national, tabloid press – have stepped way over the line.

Now, I have no sympathy for Moseley, but the treatment of the McCanns and Murat  was pretty horrendous.

There is an argument that as the McCanns courted the media, they deserved what they get. I really can’t subscribe to this point of view. Nobody deserves to have lies printed about them so regularly, especially not people who have been through such a harrowing time as they have.

Now it’s naive to suggest that journalists should be impartial and balanced at all times, but we really should insist that accuracy is non-negotiable.
Of course we’ll get things wrong and while not inexcusable, we will also be misled at times. But when stories get exaggerated, twisted and even completely fabricated just to sell papers, then the whole industry is brought into disrepute.

The purpose of the select committee is to look at regulation of the press. I used to favour self-regulation, but I just don’t think it’s working properly.

The worst offenders – the national tabloids – can easily afford the fines handed out to them. In fact calculations are often made on whether they’ll be able to make up for a libel fine with the extra sales they’ll put on.

There’s something extremely rotten about that, as is the fact that most nats set aside a budget for libel payouts. In effect they know in advance how much per year they’re willing to pay out for not telling the truth. Deliberatly printing something you know to be untrue should be the biggest sin in journalism. Sadly it seems to be actively encouraged at some papers.

Take Jade Goody at the moment – it doesn’t matter what it’s about, every tabloid paper wants a certain number of Jade stories a week. That sort of approach can only breed dodgy articles.

Self-regulation works a bit better for the regional press, if only because they simply can’t afford to take risks in these days with the rise of no-win, no-fee and the ridiculous rules on paying court costs.
It still makes little sense to me that the penalities for the Sun or Mirror could ever be on a par with those faced by the Battle Observer (circ 3,000). It’s like Chelsea being handed a £100,000 fine. We scoff at it as it has no impact. But if the likes of Luton Town are ordered to pay the same fee, it could bankrupt them.

I am worried about just how much press freedom would be curtailed by outside regulation, particularly if from the Government, but carrying on as we are simply isn’t an option.

So why not make it a two tier system?

Keep self-regulation in some form for the regionals – most are already behaving responsibly – but introduce a tougher watchdog for the national papers.
They have more resources, more money and a bigger audience. They should be setting the example, not lowering the trust in journalism.


Milk and honey

February 27, 2009

Right, after bashing university students in my last post, here is a great piece by third-year journalism student Steve Carpenter. It’s a report of a speech given by Bob Satchwell, he of the Society of Editors fame. He sent it to HoldtheFrontPage, who I hope paid him properly for it.  http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/news/090227satchwell.shtml 

Now I’ve always felt Bob was too quick to defend the tabloids whenever they stepped over the mark rather than giving them the odd kicking that they clearly deserve, but I can respect his views and he usually argues a good case.

But this speech he made to students at Coventry beggars belief.

It may be a case of telling his audience what they wanted to hear – ie that their pointless three year course (sorry Steve) is likely to lead to a job and (according to the PG) that the ‘land of milk and honey’ will return to newspapers soon – but it’s such rose-tinted nonsense that it could have been written by one of the ‘owners’.

Now before you dismiss Bob’s claim as utter tosh, or choke at his statement that the downturn could be good for the press, read this other little gem from him first:

“There are lots of stories about journalists being made redundant, which hides the fact that there are lots of other journalists that have actually been employed. There are more journalists now employed than there were ten years ago.”

Marvellous. Well done Bob. What spectacular awareness of our industry you have.

To be fair, I suppose you could argue that stories about the Kent Messenger group slashing a quarter of its staff, Northcliffe, Johnson Press and others ‘centralising production’, the heavy cuts at Bristol… (I could go on but you get the point)….are taking the limelight away from the seven reporting jobs being advertised on Holdthefrontpage at the moment – a whole two of these are for trainees.

I was actually about to join the society this week – which funnily enough has just been complaining about a fall in subscriptions – but I really don’t think I’ll bother now as it seems to have become the official mouthpiece for the owners rather than editors struggling to get their ‘products’ out because of the lack of staff.

I tell you what Bob, I’ll send in my cheque as soon as this land of milk and honey returns.


Is journalism the new media studies?

February 25, 2009

There’s been a few interesting views recently on the training of journalists.
It follows the news that the number of applications to do journalism degrees has risen by 24 % this year – that’s more than 13,000 applications for courses starting in September.

It’s a frightening statistic given the state of our industry. Every day another paper is slashing jobs and centralising production.

Nick Davies (he of Flat Earth News) http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=43159&c=1 makes some interesting points about the quality of lectures.
He states: “A great many of them are genuine crap, taught by people who haven’t the faintest idea of how to do the job.”

I think he’s spot on – there are simply too many courses and some of them just aren’t good enough.

Eastern Daily Press deputy editor Paul Durrant  http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/training/090218counciljob.shtml goes further, stating that he isn’t ‘bothered’ about journalism degrees.

It saddens me but journalism degrees have become a populist, soft option. The media studies of noughties if you will (and having done a media communications and English degree, I know all about soft options).

Journalism still looks cool to outsiders – I’m sad enough to admit that my press card is clearly visible whenever I opened my wallet. And with the rise of the internets, news and information has never been more in our faces, so it’s not surprising that lots of young people are interested in the profession.

But the massive increase in courses is dangerous. Many are uncredited and I know of at least two which are taught by people who have never been journalists.

Lets get this straight. If you want to be a journalist, there is absolutely no need to study journalism at university. What is the point in a course that lasts three years teaching something which is 95% learnt on the job?

As Paul says: “I’m bothered about NCTJ qualifications – I’m bothered about vocational training. I’m looking for maturity, passion and confidence. In terms of currency in the industry, I need to know someone’s got 100wpm shorthand, that they know what a Section 39 is.”

Apart from the NCTJ qualification – which is in dire need of a major overhaul – I agree totally with this. You can have all the journalism theory in the world but if you lack the personality and the passion you’ll be a shit reporter.

A journalist needs some law, shorthand and local government knowledge before they get started properly. These can be picked up in a pre-entry course which lasts between four months and a year.
They also need work experience. As much as they can get.

As an editor and formerly news editor, I have dealt with many work experience types.
And without execption, those who had studied or were studying journalism degrees were poor. Many simply did not have the personality (you don’t need to be pushy, but a certain amount of drive and common sense is a minimum requirement) while others were vastly unprepared for the world of work, and particularly the news room.

But the most worrying and annoying were those who thought that three years in the classroom, a piece of paper saying they achieved a 2:1 or even a 1st, was proof enough that they knew it all already.

In reality, they know no more about the industry than the kid straight out of sixth form who has been doing work experience for three months, and far less than the kid who did a four month pre-entry course. Worse, they tend to pick up more bad habits which need to be beaten out of them.

It’s depressing looking at some of the comments made by the journalism students below Paul’s article. I feel really sorry for them as they’ve clearly not received proper careers advice.
I can see it now – they tell their guidance counsellor they want to be a journalist, so the counsellor hands them the list of journalism degrees.

If you want advice – email the editor of your local rag. Many of us (although not enough) will care enough about the future generation of hacks to respond. (You might need to email them twice though as we do get a bit busy).

A candidate with a degree in say English, politics or even philosophy, definitely has an advantage other applicants who don’t as it shows a level of intelligence, that they can stick something out for three years and of course generally universities help people mature.
However, if it’s a degree in journalism, then I’m sorry, you’re immediately at a disadvantage if you send me a CV.


Who neesd subs anyway?

February 13, 2009

Sub-editors are “a layer that can be eliminated”, according to former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade.

http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=43078&c=1

I’m going to ignore the comments at the bottom of the PG story which point out Roy’s own failings, and look at his arguments instead. And I haven’t found a copy of his speech, so I’m trusting the PG report.

First of all, Mr Greenslade suggests that journalists are now “highly educated” and can sub-edit their own stories after writing them.

I really don’t know where to start with this one, but I’m going to resist the urge to push my tongue into my bottom lip and make some incredibly un-PC duh noises.

Even though I am someone who can string a sentence together, I am always grateful for an extra pair of eyes. Afterall, even world renowned authors have their copy checked.

As a trainee hack, my writing was probably cleaner than most, but it would have been insane to let that naive 20-something write straight into the paper.

Actually, one of my district papers was that stupid. All my copy for the Smalltown Obscurer went straight on the page, maybe with a spell check if the sub could be arsed. And the hopeless editor certainly never read it.

To be fair it generally worked ok – but this was because it was my home-town where I knew practically everyone so took huge pride in my work.

Of course I made a few errors, but they were usually simple things which the sub or editor could have picked  up. I think it was incredibly unfair looking back that I had to carry the can alone.
But most trainee hacks go where the work is and don’t necessarily have the strong local knowledge.

Mr G also stated that “We’re now producing highly educated, well-trained journalists, who of course don’t need to have their work changed.”

That use of “of course” really winds me up.

The statement reminds me of the awful (but enjoyable) Judge Dread film (Stallone at his best) where these clones are created in a couple of hours, complete with all the combat skills of seasoned soldiers.

Does Mr G really believe that hacks come out of journalism college knowing everything they could possibly need to know?  Even though many believe they do, this is just nonsense “of course”.

Apart from law and shorthand, nearly all journalism is learnt on the job. Having a strong sub-editor who can talk a reporter through their mistakes and mock their ignorance is a vital part of creating a well-trained hack. Without the guidance of subs, particularly in a reporter’s formative years, the overall quality of reporting will fall incredibly quickly.

And I couldn’t let this point pass without looking at the “well-educated” reporters we have these days. At every paper I’ve worked, there have been one or two outstanding journalists, but these are always outnumbered (often heavily) by journymen, idlers, wastrels and charlatans.

I also know of a few reporters who can bring in some fantastic stories and have excellent interview techniques but can’t write very well. I’d much rather have a reporter like that and help them develop their writing than a handful of spoon-fed monkeys who write perfect prose.

Mr G argues that all of this isn’t ideal, but commercially it might be necessary.

Again, I just can’t agree with that. Poorly subbed writing can quickly damage a paper’s credibility. Readers will be less inclined to read a paper littered with spelling mistakes and errors, and a loss of readers means a loss of advertisers.

It may see saving on the wage bill in the short term, but it damages the product, and thus its commercial value in the long run.

Mr G also believes there are two types of sub-editors – those who work on local or natioanl rags to templates and the creative types who write Sun headline.

I have to wonder whether Mr G has stepped into a regional newspaper office in the past ten years.

Templated pages are used, but not all the time. Pretty much every page is created on the differing merits of the story, headline, pictures and other furniture.
While the front few pages of my paper always have the same shaped adverts, the pages certainly don’t follow the same rules every week and look very different.

Mr G then makes a point, perhaps contradicting his previous arguements, that it’s not that we don’t need subs, but rather we can hire someone for £1 an hour to do the same job in a developing nation.

The local knowledge is the strongest counter to that, but there are other arguments.

As an editor I imagine it would be very difficult to try and talk through what I want from a page over the phone. To do that when English isn’t the individuals first language would make it even tougher.

I can see a time when technology will improve and the role of the creative sub will be less  – say a programme which can put all the various aspects of a page together like a jigsaw and suggest several layout options – but we’re not there yet.

And I don’t believe there will ever be a time when copy does not need to be subbed, unless we’re happy to become a txt spk nayshun of dunderheads.


Centralised subbing – could it work?

January 22, 2009

With our industry struggling to survive death by a thousand cuts (actually, it’s probably much higher than that), centralised subbing is again rearing its head.

Johnson Press backed up it’s claims this week that it is a company which “bases itself on localness” by announcing plans to move subs of several weekly titles miles away from the communities they serve. It’s easy to get angry at the 49 jobs being axed, and to recycle the old “owners are killing journalism” arguments, but I have to say I can see some merits in centralised production.

The biggest mistake the owners are going to make is voluntary redundancies. To misquote The Wire, you can do more with less – but not if you lose your best poeple.

In my (limited) experience of voluntary redundancies, the first to leave are often those who will have no trouble finding new work – ie the most skilled. The owners should targetting the deadwood first.

I know several papers which have people on their payroll who have been moved sideways into made-up and pointless positions. I know of plenty downtable subs with a much lower skill-set than their colleagues, and harsh as it sounds, this is usually through laziness. Most of us have found time to learn new technology and pick up some digital skills – we should be valued more those who are happy doing things as they’ve always done them and can’t even do a basic cut-out.

Similarly there is less room for the reporter who just rewrites press releases or stories he’s been handed by newsdesk.There is plenty of unemployed, hungry talent out there and we no longer have to settle for journeymen.

But job cuts aside, perhaps the most useful thing centralised subbing can do is free up an editor’s time.

I believe a large bank of centralised subs working on various titles will need fewer bums on seats than before.

My biggest frustration as a downtable sub was the downtime, waiting for newsdesk and editors to get their arses into gear and make decisions/send us copy. You could argue that this was just poor organisation, but the fact is if there is always work to be getting on with, productivity will be much higher.

Obviously it’s important to make sure you still have enough staff as an overworked sub is prone to errors, but my point is that centralised subs are more productive.

Done properly (and we all know it wont be), there should be little need for an editor to get involved in production and more time to get involved in the news agenda. They could be free to guide reporters properly, set the tone and strategy of the paper, meet and greet the great and good. And of course time to check through each page properly and pick up any errors that the centralised sub without local knowledge may have made. But these are things which many editors are struggling to do as we are having to plough through pages as a priority.

 Speaking to a wise-old ex-colleague this week, he told me this is what an editor’s role used to be like.

I’ve only worked with one editor who had this old-fashioned approach (or more to the point had the time), and her paper was so much better for it. It was a fantastic product because she paid such close attention to the news content and got to know her audience. Of course there wasn’t enough people to do the rest of the work, so our quality of life suffered as we struggled to meet her very high standards.

Unfortunately I doubt I’ll be seeing any of my time being freed up anytime soon.

I know the “more with less” mantra won’t be thoroughly thought through. And I know I’ll be expected to keep churning out pages ahead of all my other duties.

Centralised subbing could work – but sadly it’s going to be more about improving profit margins than the news content.